Over the weekend, I spent a couple of hours in Chapters, killing time while my eldest son and his friends played paintball. As always, I found myself drawn to the Health & Well-Being section of the store. To say I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of powers-of-positive-thinking literature on the market is an understatement. With titles ranging from “Positive Thinking is the Key to Mental Health” to “Positive Thinking is a Bunch of Crap”, it’s easy to see why
We’ve all heard the expression “fake it til you make it”, but how helpful is that kind of false positivity in the real world? Should we be plastering a smile on our faces to make ourselves look and feel more positive? The Health & Well-Being aisle in Chapters would offer a resounding (and cheerful) “yes!”
We are caught up in a rigid culture that values relentless positivity over emotional agility, true resilience, and thriving, says Susan David, Ph.D., a Psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and author of the book Emotional Agility. And when we push aside difficult emotions in order to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop deep skills to help us deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.
Dr. David argues that normal, natural emotions are now seen as good or bad. And that being positive has become a new form of moral correctness. A tyranny of positivity. It’s cruel, unkind and wildly ineffective. And we do it to ourselves, and we do it to others.
In my practice, I encourage clients that instead of struggling to “move on” from something that’s causing them emotional pain or discomfort (and wondering what’s wrong with them when they can’t), to instead accept that less-than-perfect feelings aren’t the enemy and that we can, in fact, coexist with the less-than-positive parts of ourselves.
If fake-it-til-you-make-it was a successful and emotionally sound strategy, everyone would do it and there’d be no need for people like me to dedicate my time to helping men and women work through feelings of grief, sorrow, loss and rejection. Simply put: there are some emotional wounds so great that we are never going to be 100 percent “over” it. And that’s okay.
A note on bottling emotions and expiry dates: internal pain always finds its way out. Always. And who pays the price? You do. Your children do. Your friends, your colleagues, your everybody. In addition, we need to rid ourselves of the delusion that feeling emotional pain has an expiration date. It’s ridiculous and it leads to a shame cycle of stress, guilt, and hopelessness.
As Dr. David’s work on emotional agility indicates, false positivity is steeped in denial and is a rigid, maladaptive response that simply does not work. It’s unsustainable. For individuals, for families and for societies.